Common murre

Common murre

Common murre, Common guillemot

Uria aalge
Life Span
26.5 years
g oz 

The common murre or common guillemot (Uria aalge ) is a large auk. It has a circumpolar distribution, occurring in low-Arctic and boreal waters in the North Atlantic and North Pacific. It spends most of its time at sea, only coming to land to breed on rocky cliff shores or islands.

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Common murres have fast direct flight but are not very agile. They are more maneuverable underwater, typically diving to depths of 30–60 m (100–195 ft). Depths of up to 180 m (590 ft) have been recorded.

Common murres breed in colonies at high densities. Nesting pairs may be in bodily contact with their neighbours. They make no nest; their single egg is incubated on a bare rock ledge on a cliff face. Eggs hatch after ~30 days incubation. The chick is born downy and can regulate its body temperature after 10 days. Some 20 days after hatching the chick leaves its nesting ledge and heads for the sea, unable to fly, but gliding for some distance with fluttering wings, accompanied by its male parent. Male guillemots spend more time diving, and dive more deeply than females during this time. Chicks are capable of diving as soon as they hit the water. The female stays at the nest site for some 14 days after the chick has left.

Both male and female common murres moult after breeding and become flightless for 1–2 months. In some populations they occasionally return to the nest site throughout the winter. Adult birds reduce the time that they spend flying during the winter and are able to forage nocturnally.

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The common murre is 38–46 cm (15–18 in) in length with a 61–73 cm (24–29 in) wingspan. Male and female are indistinguishable in the field and weight ranges between 945 g (2 lb 1+1⁄2 oz) in the south of their range to 1,044 g (2 lb 5 oz) in the north. A weight range of 775–1,250 g (1 lb 11+1⁄2 oz – 2 lb 12 oz) has been reported. In breeding plumage, the nominate subspecies (U. a. aalge ) is black on the head, back and wings, and has white underparts. It has thin dark pointed bill and a small rounded dark tail. After the pre-basic moult, the face is white with a dark spur behind the eye. Birds of the subspecies U. a. albionis are dark brown rather than black, most obviously so in colonies in southern Britain. Legs are grey and the bill is dark grey. Occasionally, adults are seen with yellow/grey legs. In May 2008, an aberrant adult was photographed with a bright yellow bill.

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The plumage of first winter birds is the same as the adult basic plumage. However, the first pre-alternate moult occurs later in the year. The adult pre-alternate moult is December–February, (even starting as early as November in U. a. albionis ). First year birds can be in basic plumage as late as May, and their alternate plumage can retain some white feathers around the throat.

Some individuals in the North Atlantic, known as "bridled guillemots", have a white ring around the eye extending back as a white line. This is not a distinct subspecies, but a polymorphism that becomes more common the farther north the birds breed—perhaps character displacement with the northerly thick-billed murre, which has a white bill-stripe but no bridled morph. The white is highly contrasting especially in the latter species and would provide an easy means for an individual bird to recognize conspecifics in densely packed breeding colonies.

The chicks are downy with blackish feathers on top and white below. By 12 days old, contour feathers are well developed in areas except for the head. At 15 days, facial feathers show the dark eyestripe against the white throat and cheek.

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The breeding habitat is islands, rocky shores, cliffs and sea stacks. The population is large, perhaps 7.3 million breeding pairs or 18 million individuals. It had been stable, but in 2016 a massive die-off of the birds in the northeast Pacific was reported. The birds seem emaciated and starving; no etiology has been found. In general, potential threats include excessive hunting (legal in Newfoundland), pollution and oil spills. Cape Meares, Oregon is home to one of the most populous colonies of nesting common murres on the North American continent.

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Some birds are permanent residents; northern birds migrate south to open waters near New England, southern California, Japan, Korea and the western Mediterranean. UK populations are generally distributed near their breeding colonies year-round, but have been found to make long-distance migrations as far north as the Barents Sea. Common murres rest on the water in the winter and this may have consequences for their metabolism. In the black-legged kittiwake (which shares this winter habit) resting metabolism is 40% higher on water than it is in air.

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Common murre habitat map
Common murre habitat map
Common murre
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Habits and Lifestyle

The common murre flies with fast wing beats and has a flight speed of 80 km/h (50 mph). Groups of birds are often seen flying together in a line just above the sea surface. However, a high wing loading of 2 g/cm2 means that this species is not very agile and take-off is difficult. Common murres become flightless for 45–60 days while moulting their primary feathers. The sound of the wing beats of the murres are often described as similar to a helicopter.

Seasonal behavior
Bird's call

Diet and Nutrition

The common murre can venture far from its breeding grounds to forage; distances of 100 km (60 mi) and more are often observed though if sufficient food is available closer by, birds only travel much shorter distances. The common murre mainly eats small schooling forage fish 200 mm (8 in) long or less, such as polar cod, capelin, sand lances, sprats, sandeels, Atlantic cod and Atlantic herring. Capelin and sand lances are favourite food, but what the main prey is at any one time depends much on what is available in quantity. It also eats some molluscs, marine worms, squid, and crustaceans such as amphipods. It consumes 20–32 g (11⁄16–1+1⁄8 oz) of food in a day on average. It is often seen carrying fish in its bill with the tail hanging out.

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The snake pipefish is occasionally eaten, but it has poor nutritional value. The amount of these fish is increasing in the common murre's diet. Since 2003, the snake pipefish has increased in numbers in the North-east Atlantic and North Sea and sandeel numbers have declined.

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Mating Habits

Courtship displays including bowing, billing and mutual preening. The male points its head vertically and makes croaking and growling noises to attract the females. The species is monogamous, but pairs may split if breeding is unsuccessful.

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Common murre eggs are large (around 11% of female weight), and are pointed at one end. The egg's pyriform shape is popularly ascribed the function of allowing the egg to spin on its axis or in an arc when disturbed, however there is no evidence to support this claim. Various hypotheses have arisen to explain the egg's shape:

Eggs are laid between May and July for the Atlantic populations and March to July for those in the Pacific. The female spends less time ashore during the two weeks before laying. When laying, she assumes a "phoenix-like" posture: her body raised upright on vertical tarsi; wings half outstretched. The egg emerges point first and laying usually takes 5–10 minutes.

The eggs vary in colour and pattern to help the parents recognize them, each egg's pattern being unique. Colours include white, green, blue or brown with spots or speckles in black or lilac. After laying, the female will look at the egg before starting the first incubation shift. Both parents incubate the egg using a single, centrally located brood patch for the 28 to 34 days to hatching in shifts of 1–38 hours.

Eggs can be lost due to predation or carelessness. Crows and gulls are opportunist egg thieves. Eggs are also knocked from ledges during fights. If the first egg is lost, the female may lay a second egg. This egg is usually lighter than the first, with a lighter yolk. Chicks from second eggs grow quicker than those from first eggs. However this rapid growth comes at a cost, first chicks have larger fat reserves and can withstand temporary shortages of food.

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1. Common murre Wikipedia article -
2. Common murre on The IUCN Red List site -
3. Xeno-canto bird call -

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